What’s in a Name?

The Montagues and Capulets placed great store in their brand names, even to the point of stabbing one another, but the Capulet girl was a wistful voice: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Move from Verona across a few centuries to the United States, and the tension persists, especially among cranks whose affectation of being scandalized for personal gain outdoes the least righteous of the Pharisees. Ignorance of etymology fuels the fire of such people, and consequently there is the foolishness of banning the term “tar baby” from storybooks even though it has nothing to do with race. It is like an untutored man who is shocked to hear that his daughter has matriculated in public on her first day at college. There is the actual instance of the forced resignation of a mayoral aide in Washington, D.C., for using the word “niggardly” with reference to the city budget. A member of the city council, who objected that the term was racist, was weak in his grasp of Old Norse, origin of the root word nigla, which means “fussing pedantically over nonsense.”

Things got complicated when the shocked city councilman was called “homophobic” by members of the “gay community” which defended the mayoral aide as one of their own. Even the good word “gay” has become freighted with new meaning, and I expect that the Gordon Highlanders may next object that the Scottish folkdance, “the Gay Gordons,” has become misinterpreted. This is not helped by the fact that it is danced counterclockwise. Julian Bond, as head of the NAACP, an organization that has managed steadfastly to keep its official name, sensibly said of the niggardly incident: “You hate to think that you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding.”

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There was real lack of understanding behind complaints about the trademarked name of the Washington Redskins professional football team, as racist and demeaning. That was shot down in District Court, the Court of Appeals, and finally by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009. One of the original complaints came from a Native American who was one year old when “Redskins” was registered as a mark in 1967. I myself have no case against calling Native Americans “Native Americans,” and I am well aware that the Lenni Lenapes were tilling the land on which I was born for possibly eleven centuries before my natal day. In 1684 a Scots settler, perhaps a Gordon for all we know, said they were “gentle, kind and good.” That was in New Jersey, and anyone born in New Jersey is radically native to America, so I claim the name for myself as well.

Now the case against the Washington Redskins has been revived, and it is an echo of stirrings from the 1970’s when a group of “college activists” forced Dartmouth to change its symbol from an Indian to a Pine Tree, even though pine trees lack athletic prowess. At the time, to the embarrassment of mostly pale-faced campus “activists,” chiefs of tribes across the nation said in a survey that they wanted to keep the Indian. Dartmouth was chartered by King George III in 1769 “for the education & instruction of Youth of the Indian tribes in this Land in reading, writing & all parts of Learning which shall appear necessary and expedient for civilizing & christianizing Children of Pagans as well as in all liberal Arts and Sciences; and also of English Youth and any others.”

The King refers to “savage” tribes, as would the Declaration of Independence, protesting that His Majesty had allied the “merciless Indian savages” against the English in the colonies. The problem was not savagery but mercilessness. “Savage” is not a high compliment and certainly can be pejorative, but it is properly understood with detachment in the sense of its Latin source silvaticus, meaning wandering and wild, which would apply today to the typical undergraduate, whose vocabulary is much more limited than that of any of the Algonquian language groups.

In this there was nothing racist, for categorization according to color took hold more tenaciously and systematically only among the Rationalists of the late eighteenth century and subsequent Social Darwinists. Jefferson himself extolled the integrity and potential of Indian culture in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” to which he appended a speech of the Mingo chief Logan lamenting the destruction of his family by a white settler, as comparable to anything in classical or modern oratory. Recent scholarship has argued that “Redskin” was a rare usage before the nineteenth century and referred not to race, but to war paint designating strength and bravery, rather the way the head of the Society of Jesus is called the “Black Pope” because he wears black and not because of his skin.  But now we have a Jesuit pope who wears white, so that muddles things.

The term “Redskin” was a translation of the Peau-Rouge neologism of the benign and longsuffering French Jesuit missionaries. It was also self-referential, and the chief of the Sauks, Quashquame, was recorded in 1825 as referring to his “Red Skin nation.” James Fenimore Cooper popularized the term in allusion to native people he thought “comely” and never as an insult. Not infrequently did various sachems refer to Europeans as “red men” because of how they were sunburned by an unfamiliar outdoor life.

If we want to play social engineers with the names of sports teams, we shall catch a host of problems worldwide. Consider some of the names of teams:  Albania—Kuqezinjte (Reds and Blacks); Rwanda—Amavubi (Wasps); Poland—Bialo-Czerwoni (White and Reds). It may be that there is not a majority of Irishmen now among Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish” but that is a stereotype if ever there was one. No team calls itself the “Fighting Anglo-Saxons.” Then there are the “Ragin’ Cajuns” at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and the prospect of the Minnesota “Vikings” ever taking on the Hawaiian “Rainbows” conjures overwhelming carnage. Worse would be the Penn “Quakers” up against Yeshiva University’s “Maccabees.” Christendom College has the “Crusaders” which would please King Louis IX, if not President Obama, who has suggested whitewashing the Washington Redskins, although he subsequently welcomed to the White House the NHL champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. It is nice to know that the cerebral New Jersey Institute of Technology manages to field a team called the “Scots Highlanders.” There loom the problematic Gordons again.

We have not yet reached the nadir of the Nika Riots in Justinian’s Constantinople in 532. The city was as sports crazy as we are, which is always a sign of decadence, and the Hippodrome was right next to the royal palace so that the emperor could watch the races at home before the days of television.  His wife Theodora was a sports fan even more fanatical than Justinian and helped stoke the violence that destroyed much of the city including that greatest of churches, Hagia Sophia. The teams were harmlessly named the Blue and the Green, but they came to represent political parties and, worse, theological parties, for the Blues were orthodox believers while the Greens were Monophysite heretics. Politics and religion played out in the circus was a volatile combination, and about thirty thousand were killed in one of the worst riots in history.

What then is in a name? I refer to Our Lord who says: “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it” (Revelation 2:17). One theory is that since Jesus is speaking here to the Church in Pergamum, this is an allusion to the temple of Asclepius, on whose marble pillars were carved the names of those healed there, rather like votives in Lourdes and Fatima. More likely, it is sourced in the custom of ancient Rome to give the winner of a contest a white stone inscribed with his name as an admission ticket to the victory banquet.

All of our games are foolish unless they are understood as intimations of the great race that is set before us, which is life itself. It is so great a run and so ennobling an adventure, that to sully it with silly politics and mindless bias is to risk the prize of the Heavenly City where all the tribes go up. So, dear Juliet Capulet, it would seem that there is much in a name, and all depends on Him at whose name every knee should bend.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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